Lou Bartolotta is the recipient of this year's Helicopter Association International Lifetime Achievement Award, sponsored by Bell Helicopter. He has devoted his entire adult life to the industry and participated in many historical rotorcraft milestones.
Bartolotta joined the U.S. Army in 1969 and flew more than 1,000 hours during his one-year tour in Vietnam from 1970 to 1971. In the mid-1970s, he joined Bristow Helicopters, first serving in Tehran in pre-revolution Iran as an instructor in Bristow's training academy and then as chief pilot on a seismic support contract, flying Bell 205 and 212 helicopters. He transferred to Aberdeen, Scotland, where he flew Sikorsky S-61N and S-76A helicopters in support of North Sea oil exploration and production.
From 1983 to 1985, Bartolotta served as HAI vice president of operations in Washington, D.C. After his stint with HAI, he joined Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm, the German company that later merged with France's Aerospatiale to form Eurocopter, now known as Airbus Helicopters.
In 1988, Italian manufacturer Agusta appointed Bartolotta vice president of marketing and operations of its U.S. subsidiary in Philadelphia. Agusta and Westland Helicopters of the UK merged in 2000 to form AgustaWestland, and Bartolotta served the company for 26 years. During that time he oversaw numerous projects, including the introduction of the BA609 (now the AW609) civil tiltrotor, eventually becoming senior advisor to the Commercial Business Unit.
Bartolotta retired from AgustaWestland last July but he continues to serve the helicopter industry through his consulting firm, L.P. Bartolotta & Associates of Philadelphia, which he established in September.
The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Bartolotta yesterday at the Salute to Excellence ceremony.
Helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operators transport about 400,000 patients and life-saving organs a year. Many of those trips require operating in poor weather, but for years HEMS pilots were prevented from taking off or landing at hospitals under instrument flight rules (IFR). Those limitations grounded many potentially life-saving HEMS missions.
That changed when Edwin McConkey, a mathematician and software engineer, devised a means to enable pilots to fly instrument approaches to hospital helipads without existing IFR infrastructure. "Edwin McConkey is an unsung hero of the helicopter industry," said HAI. "He is not a pilot or mechanic, but he has arguably done more to keep pilots, crews and passengers safe in poor weather conditions than any other individual."
HAI is presenting its Excellence in Safety Award to McConkey on March 4 for his pioneering work in helicopter IFR procedures. The Excellence in Safety Award recognizes "outstanding contributions in the promotion of safety and safety awareness throughout the international helicopter community."
McConkey, the technical director for approach procedures specialist Hickok & Associates, has spent more than 50 years involved in research and development, system engineering and project management support for helicopter instrument procedures, air traffic control systems and advanced vertical-flight infrastructure.
In the late 1990s he developed an algorithm for helicopter-specific instrument approaches to facilities without all-weather infrastructure, HAI said. Later evolved for satellite navigation, that algorithm is used by FAA and international aviation authorities to develop helicopter "point-in-space" approaches. These approaches are particularly critical for helipads, enabling HEMS operations in IFR conditions that previously were unflyable or forced pilots to try to remain in VFR conditions.
"Nearly every helicopter GPS procedure commissioned by FAA to date has been developed using automation software tools originated by Ed McConkey, and every helicopter GPS procedure commissioned by FAA to date uses criteria that Ed was involved in for its origination," said Stephen Hickok, president of Hickok & Associates, in nominating him.
Over the past 12 years at Hickok, McConkey has designed, developed, and tested more than 150 software tools to support LNAV approaches, LPV approaches, departures, transition routes, holding airspace and procedure maintenance.
He previously managed SAIC's and System Control Technology's General Aviation and Vertical Flight Technical Support Program for the FAA. This program tested 200 GPS approaches at four U.S. locations.
McConkey's contribution to safety has been noteworthy. While the helicopter accident rate has been under scrutiny, there have been no accidents involving an IFR flight using the GPS approaches developed through McConkey's algorithms.
Air Methods is doubling down on its safety investments. The company recently signed a 10-year deal with FlightSafety International to install four full-motion Level D-qualified helicopter flight simulators at an expanded Air Methods learning center that will open in 2016 in Denver.
The Airbus EC135 simulator currently being used by Air Methods at FlightSafety's Dallas learning center will be installed first, with simulators for the Bell 407GX and Airbus AS350B3 and EC130T2 to follow once FlightSafety completes the design, development and manufacture of those simulators. The learning center will also offer classrooms and customer service areas, and it will be expanded in the future to accommodate additional full flight simulators.
The four helicopter models represent the majority of the more than 400-strong Air Methods helicopter fleet at both its air-medical and tourism divisions, company CEO Aaron Todd told AIN. Todd noted that last year "represented another year of safe operations" for the company. "We always count our blessings when our employees and patient passengers get home safely, and that is not by chance. We have invested heavily in training, technology and safety systems. We are encouraged by the continuous improvement in our safety record and we continue to work hard and stay humble."
Air Methods' improved safety record in 2014 is part of a recent overall industry trend nationwide, according to figures on U.S. civil helicopter accidents released in January by the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team. Total helicopter accidents nationwide posted by all Part 91 and 135 operations dropped by 11 percent to 130 in 2014 compared to 146 in 2013. Fatal accidents fell by 30 percent to 21 in 2014 compared to 30 in 2013. Compared to 2005 (the year before the International Helicopter Safety Team was established), total accidents are down 30 percent, from 185 to 130.
Overall, Todd said 2014 was a good year for Air Methods. "We've had a good, strong, healthy year with good earnings growth. We have enjoyed healthy flight volume and have seen good success from our base expansions and our hospital outsourcing activities. This is the first year we have operated on a consolidated basis with Blue Hawaiian and we are very happy and encouraged how our expansion into the tourism sector has progressed."
Air Methods acquired air tour company Blue Hawaiian Helicopters for $66 million in December 2013. It acquired air tour company Sundance Helicopters of Las Vegas for $44 million in 2012.
Air tourism was expected to generate revenues of $115 million for Air Methods in 2014, roughly 11 percent of total company revenues, with the company's market share representing more than 20 percent of the annual $500 million domestic heli-tour business. Todd said he was very happy with the existing air tourism management team. He added that the strategy of using the air-tour companies to stoke the pilot pipeline for air-medical operations is beginning to bear fruit. "We never expected it to be a massive migration, but we have clarified the advantages for pilots and mechanics who want to move into the air-medical sector and stay with Air Methods. That will continue to create loyalty with the workforce," he said.
However, air-medical continues to provide 86 percent of company revenues and the picture for that in 2014 looked good, with both revenues and net income improving during the first nine months compared to the same period a year before. However, per-patient revenues slipped slightly during the third quarter from the same period a year ago, to $11,972 from $11,988, for community-based transports. This drop occurred even though the volume of those transports increased by 7 percent over the previous year period, thanks largely to the opening of 13 new bases. The company now operates from 186 bases nationwide.
Todd blamed the per patient revenue dip on the impact of Obamacare, which resulted in a decrease in the number of privately-insured patient transports, down slightly to 32.6 percent from 34.2 percent in the same period a year ago.
"Speaking to the third quarter there was higher hope that we would see improvement in the percentage of patients that we transport who have private commercial insurance through the exchanges or other commercial insurance providers," Todd said. "We just haven't seen that to date. We have seen a movement from the uninsured category into the Medicaid category, but that has minimal benefit to the company. Other healthcare providers have not seen that improvement either. Their improvement has been largely from the migration into the Medicaid category."
Medicare and Medicaid together constitute 56 percent of Air Methods patient-transport revenues, but typically reimburse at a lower rate than private insurance. Todd noted that it is taking longer and requiring more processing to collect from private insurers. "In the third quarter of 2013 we averaged about 2.3 payments before we closed out an individual's commercially insured account. Now it is taking about 2.8 payments. So there is more paperwork, more documentation, more review and procedures that are being engaged."
Todd said Air Methods was just beginning to capture the benefits of lower fuel costs, noting that the company's fuel bill is approximately $40 million per year. He added that while the distressed new helicopter sales market provides opportunities, this won't necessarily encourage Air Methods to buy more new helicopters than previously planned. "The availability of civil aircraft has not been an issue for several years. I think it is fair to say that the manufacturers are hungry at this time for many reasons, but it is not influencing our decision as to how many aircraft we are going to place on order. But it is influencing us as to whether we are willing to commit with one manufacturer for a multi-year order. I think as you consolidate your purchasing power and agree to enter into multi-year commitments, there is greater flexibility to improve the cost to procure and maintain a fleet."
Air Methods' bias is to purchasing new single-engine aircraft, Todd said, estimating that 90 percent of the new helicopters it has ordered in the last three to five years have been in this category. He said the company will continue to convert leased aircraft to owned aircraft and would shy away from leasing as a means of acquiring new aircraft. "We have a strong bias not to lease aircraft. When you lease an aircraft you transfer the bonus depreciation tax benefit to the lessor," he noted.
Finally, Todd said that the company's United Rotorcraft division (Booth 2154) will continue to pursue government contracts for aircraft modifications, but he noted the inherent difficulties of that market both for military and civilian customers. "We want to build that backlog and expand the order book every year, but it is a challenging environment relative to the Defense Department's budget restraints. The regulatory challenges associated with the certification of new-product-design and retrofit activities is not getting any easier, but we are very happy with the progress we are making."
United Rotorcraft recently received FAA STC approval for the first installation of an air-medical interior in an Airbus Helicopters EC130T2, the first of 10 new EC130T2s scheduled to join the Air Methods air-medical fleet.
RMCI, a Huntsville, Ala.-based company specializing in helicopter health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) and helicopter flight data monitoring (HFDM), is here promoting its Krēnō analysis software program. Also on display and designed for use with Krēnō is RMCI's lightweight expandable rotorcraft diagnostic system (XRDS).
Krēnō is scheduled to enter service soon with an unidentified large-fleet operator. It provides a streamlined interface and faster processing of data for monitoring both vibration (revealing aircraft health) and flight parameters (revealing how the aircraft is flown), according to the company. The software can also be used with HUMS hardware made by other manufacturers.
The XRDS is expected to be STC'd on the Airbus Helicopters AS350 AStar, Bell 407 and Bell 206 singles in the middle of this year. XRDS is shown here in its latest form factor, about two-thirds the size of the previous iteration.
Using Krēnō with XRDS offers significant speed advantages over other systems, RMCI CEO Ken Speaks told AIN. "Downloading takes seconds, as opposed to minutes," he said, adding that the subsequent data interpretation is much faster with Krēnō as well. By combining HUMS and HFDM analysis, Krēnō can allow operators to identify at precisely which point during the flight a particular defect appeared, he said.
Krēnō can also open new avenues for monitoring the health of a helicopter. RMCI or the customer operator can create new indicators, shedding light on, for example, a correlation between gear damage and a particular vibration pattern. "This significantly empowers the operator," Speaks said.
RMCI's XRDS weighs less than five pounds, including sensors, according to Speaks, and its price is said to make it affordable for light twins and even singles. For its new onboard system, RMCI is developing "a new patent-pending approach for detecting cracks and monitoring propagation," he added.
Speaks and RMCI engineer Lance Antolick will present a safety case for HUMS at one of the HAI Rotor Safety Challenge sessions tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. in Level III South in the Orange County Convention Center.